The children of Guilford County can celebrate because the Guilford County Board of Commissioners has saved the problem-plagued kiddie train at Northeast Park.
Now everyone in Guilford County government has their fingers crossed, hoping that it won’t be the county’s taxpayers who end up getting taken for a ride.
At the Board of Commissioners’ Thursday, April 6 meeting, after a good deal of discussion, the county commissioners voted 7 to 1 to spend an estimated $63,000 to save the choo-choo train that’s been the source of massive headaches for five years and has already cost the county about a half-million dollars.
The decision was a lot closer than the lopsided vote would indicate: Most of the commissioners who voted to repair the train – or at least give it one more valiant try – said they were uncertain what to do and said they worried they were throwing good money after bad.
Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece also said it was a close call. He gave the board the project details and noted that the Guilford County Parks and Recreation Commission had unanimously recommended repairing the train. He said a well-running and consistently operating train – if the county could finally get things to that point – would draw a lot of people to Northeast Park.
The ride has been open to the public so infrequently over the years that it’s hard to get good numbers on its use when it is. However, when it was running briefly in December 2015, it was a popular attraction at the park.
“The train is actually a big part of the park,” McNiece said, adding that there’s also a tunnel, crossings and about a half-mile of track.
McNiece said part of the problem was that, five years ago, the county purchased a train that was far from top of the line.
“The train was not the highest quality train that could have been purchased at the time,” he said. “We got what we paid for – not the Cadillac; we got the Chevette.”
Five years ago, Guilford County spent nearly $370,000 on the project – roughly $170,000 for the train and about $200,000 for the track. The county could have purchased a very good train for around $250,000 and it no doubt would have served the county better than the train the county is now saddled with. The track is said to be a good quality track, though clearly it has issues of its own.
Over the last five years, the county has paid experts and consultants to try to get the train running but so far nothing has worked.
The new project involves both engine repair and track repair. Fixing the track is estimated to take about $16,000, while the engine is projected to cost around $47,000.
McNiece said the train and track will always require some type of regular maintenance, but he added that, hopefully, it will only need routine maintenance for a while after the repairs are made.
Commissioner Hank Henning was one of the first commissioners to weigh in.
“It has a good track record,” Henning joked, but instead of laughs his fellow commissioners just looked at him like he was crazy because they thought he was being serious – and the statement he’d made couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Henning said he had a few questions but those were mostly just to “delay while I make up my mind.”
He added, “I’m sure I’m like everyone else in that I can go either way on this.”
Henning said after the meeting that he had struggled mightily with the train issue and that he only made his decision to support the repair right before the vote. Henning also said he was very surprised that previous county officials didn’t try to get their money back years ago after it became obvious they had been sold a lemon.
At the meeting, Henning said this was likely the last time Guilford County staff would ever see him vote to put more money into the Northeast Park train.
“We can’t have any more debacles like this,” Henning said.
McNiece said payment to the Burlington-based company repairing the train would be dependent on successful completion of the work. He also said it was a well-respected firm that offered a one-year warranty on the work.
Like Henning and other commissioners, McNiece said this was a difficult call to make.
“This isn’t a slam dunk for my side either,” McNiece said. “It’s still not a great train. I don’t want you to leave here with the belief that this thing is going to run great for the next 20 years.”
When one commissioner told McNiece he was being evasive in his recommendation, McNiece joked that he was working on being more political when it came to his answers.
McNiece also said the train could be a big draw, like similar trains in High Point and Burlington have proven to be.
“It’s never going to be a large revenue item,” he said, adding that it might generate $10,000 to $15,000 a year.
He said people often call and ask, “Is the train going to be running?” before making plans to come out to Northeast Park. The train hasn’t been open to the public in nearly a year and a half, and even that period of operation was very brief.
McNiece said he can’t give a good estimate as to how many people will ride the train once it’s fixed. He said one problem with the train is that it has never run long enough to establish any type of following.
At the April 6 meeting in the commissioners second-floor meeting room in the Old Guilford County Court House, Commissioner Carolyn Coleman said the kiddie train would be a good draw if it were operational and marketed properly.
Commissioner Justin Conrad offered a friendly amendment to the motion to fix the train: Guilford County, he said, should make an attempt to find a nonprofit or private sector group willing to own and operate the train.
That amendment passed along with the decision to repair the train, but at this point it seems highly unlikely someone would want to take over the cursed money pit that’s cost the county roughly $500,000 so far. Also, the terms of that agreement would no doubt be difficult to hash out. Some commissioners, especially Coleman, were concerned Guilford County would still carry liability for the train even if it were owned and operated by another entity.
In this most recent attempt to fix the train, county staff has learned a lot more about the train’s problems. One seems to be that Guilford County bought the track and the train from different vendors, and there’s some evidence that the train doesn’t “fit the track” well, which is why it often runs off the tracks when it goes around a curve.
“We’ve been able to keep the train running – the problem with the train is keeping it on the track,” McNiece told the board at one point.
Commissioner Kay Cashion asked, “So is there a mismatch between the tracks and the train?”
“That’s a good question,” McNiece said.
Commissioner Alan Branson represents the Northeast Park area and he said he’s sick and tired of hearing about problems with the train.
“This makes me think of the Ford Edsel and the Pinto,” Branson said.
Commissioner Alan Perdue asked if this was the best use of $63,000 when it comes to county parks’ projects.
“It’s part of a whole system,” McNiece said of the train.
He said the miniature golf course, the carousel and other attractions at Northeast Park get more use when people come to ride the train. He also said that, given the park’s location, people don’t “just stumble” upon it, but instead they go there with a purpose.
Several commissioners who voted to repair the train made it clear that they would be highly unlikely to approve any more money for the train should something else go wrong. Henning’s comment was typical.
“What is our breaking point?” he said. “When do we say, ‘Enough is enough’? For me, this is it. If it’s even $10,000 brought to us next year – then I’m probably done.”
McNiece said he didn’t see that happening because the next time something went wrong with it he would be so reluctant to bring it to the board that, instead, “You’ll see me underneath the train trying to fix it.”
Conrad offered an unusual reason to make the repairs.
“If we don’t fix the train, Scott Yost is going to be personally devastated,” Conrad said, joking about the Rhino Times extensive coverage of the train.
The Rhino Times has taken no official position on the fate of the train. However, the newspaper does believe that attempting to fix it will continue to lead to many interesting stories in future papers.
Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips has made it a theme for the current board that this group shouldn’t repeat or continue the mistakes of past Guilford County Boards of Commissioners, and he clearly thought this was one of those cases. He voted against the move and spoke against it.
“I’m not going to support this,” Phillips said.
He said he considered it “a certainty” that more major problems would surface with the train and he added that the money would be better spent elsewhere.
“There are needs at other parks that may be underserved,” Phillips said, “and this I view as a little more of a want.”
Even those who voted to fix the train seemed to have a sense that Phillips’ prediction would turn out to be correct.
“It does leave a little queasiness in my stomach,” Branson said right before he voted to repair the train that’s become known as “The Little Train that Couldn’t.”
One comment from the facilities director summed up the feelings of a lot people in the room that night.
“I’ve learned more about trains than I ever wanted to know,” McNiece said.